“Something has changed.”
Instead of heading off to another devil subjugation, Arnold and the others headed back to the capital. There would be no triumphal parades this time, the orders were to return as fast as they could.
Once in the city, they could spot no signs of celebration. The place was tense and the atmosphere was exacerbated by the sight of the soldiers and knights of the garrison frantically coming in and out of the citadel.
The citizens of the capital could instinctively feel that a new battle was approaching.
Arnold’s group felt that way too once they crossed the city gates. Something was going on and they didn’t understand what. With that on their mind, they hurried to the castle with an even greater sense of urgency than that of a common citizen.
There was no praise or formal reception awaiting them there either, they were curtly informed of the King’s whereabouts and told to go there without delay. Arnold felt nervous opening the door to that chamber. What he saw in there stupefied him.
The middle of the room was occupied by a huge table and that table was groaning under the weight of a multitude of maps, papers, and other documents spread on top of it. It was not the only place with a map on it either. There was also a large map on a wall and that one was scribbled all over with words and symbols.
The King stood in front of that one, his face a mix of emotion. He was accompanied by the Knight Commander, the Marshal of the Crown and a posse of subordinates of those two.
But the most surprising sight of them all was that of Rion, dozing off on a chair next to all those leaders and military officials.
Neither Arnold nor the others had the tiniest shred of an idea as to what was happening.
「You all are being a hindrance.」
A voice suddenly resounded behind his back. It was familiar and, sure enough, when Arnold looked behind him he saw Ariel there holding a tray.
This just made the confusion in the prince’s head grow.
「Could highness please make way?」
Once Arnold and the others backed off, Ariel went inside the room straight to where Rion was. She placed the tray on the table, grinned, and pinched her husband’s nose.
Rion woke up immediately, his eyes met Ariel’s.
「Ah, I forgot the mouth, shame.」
Ariel was clearly and visibly enjoying herself.
「…That would suffocate me, you know.」
「Good morning to you too, Rion. I prepared tea.」
She brushed off his complaints and presented the tray with the beverage.
「Thank you. But good morning? Have I slept that much?」
「No husband, it was not even half an hour.」
「…Ah, good night to you then.」
Rion immediately rested his head against the chair again.
「Nonono, do not think you will be allowed to sleep.」
「His highness the Crown Prince and the others have returned.」
「….Oh, I see.」
Seeing Arnold and the others, still hovering at the threshold, Rion corrected his posture. But instead of going to greet them, he just sipped on the tea that Ariel had prepared.
「Oh, have you returned? Do not just stand there. Enter.」
The King was the one to welcome them instead and they did just as they were told. Arnold himself went to the central table and sat close to Rion.
「…Would there be any tea for us?」
「Shouldn’t majesty ask a maid for that? Ariel is not one, she is my wife.」
「You are not wrong but…. Ah, never mind.」
The King was just barely able to hold himself from saying that he would very much like the tea prepared by the wife of his son. He rubbed the corners of his eyes with his fingers, looking troubled. After all, even he was tired at this point.
「It is fine, I will prepare tea for everyone. However, that is a hard task for one person, may I borrow the castle’s maids for a while?」
「Oh, can I leave that to you?」
Hearing the proposal of Ariel, the monarch smiled again and kept smiling while Ariel left the room again.
「Heavens blessed you with a considerate wife」
「None of the stories I know in which a king lays a hand on his vassal’s wife ends well, majesty.」
Not knowing the truth of their relationship, this was the only way Rion could react to the King’s praise. Incidentally, he was probably the only person in the world to naturally jump to that kind of a conclusion.
「Shouldn’t majesty talk to your son first?」
「…I guess we should.」
For the first time since their arrival, the King’s attention went fully to the Crown Prince’s group.
「Let us start by congratulating you all on the good work on your mission.」
「Thank you very much, majesty.」
「And with that out of the way… Which questions shall we start with?」
The King looked at Rion while asking this. Arnold and his group immediately realized that Viscount Frey had a central role in whatever was happening.
「…Confirm the truth, majesty.」
「That is a lot of hassle, how about you do that instead?」
With a loud, dramatic sigh Rion faced the arrivals. His eyes rested on Maria who was sitting in the farthest seat.
「Miss Theodore, a question.」
「I need you to tell me something. This is something that only you would know.」
「What would that be?」
「When is the Kingdom of Merica going to attack?」
Hearing the unexpected question, Maria’s eyes opened wide from surprise. It was exactly the reaction that Rion had wished for.
「As I thought, you were aware of it. As expected of the hero, I guess. So… When?」
Rion resumed the conversation on the premise that Maria was fully aware of the incoming attack.
「…How did you know?」
This too was a reaction Rion had wanted. Now that she asked this question, feigning ignorance was no longer an option for her. Attempting to get her by surprise brought satisfying results.
「Not only the border with Merica, but the whole south is a mess when it comes to defenses. The capital is thinly protected. Isn’t expecting other countries to try and exploit that obvious?」
The capital was certain to fall to the Merica’s surprise attack in the game’s story. But now that the Kingdom was aware of that, Maria didn’t know how the future could possibly still bring the same result.
「Thanks to the hero’s knowledge, our worries were confirmed. This calls for countermeasures. The obvious question is, what should we do?」
「Aren’t you supposed to save the Kingdom from peril?」
The protagonist’s task in the game was to save the citizens after the Kingdom’s fall. Therefore, Maria had no answer for Rion’s question.
「…Oh? Don’t tell me…?」
Maria’s response betrayed that the prospect of the city’s fall was not a joke. And that Maria’s intentions weren’t good. Staying silent despite having this kind of knowledge was grounds for punishment.
「T-That’s something I want counsel on myself!」
Knowing well that letting things develop that way would be bad for her, Maria immediately started to improvise excuses.
「…The attack will come while we are out subjugating a new devil. It will not be possible to vanquish it and defend the capital at the same time. I was at a loss on what should we do.」
For the time being, she had settled on making it seem that she was just late in relaying the news.
However, to Rion, that was irrelevant. He didn’t think it was possible for the protagonist to face any punishment at this stage of the scenario.
「Is that so… Should I replace you in devil subjugation then?」
「That would be easier for m– I mean, the citizens would feel more at ease with the hero protecting them.」
「….The next devil to appear is a really dangerous one.」
Allowing subjugations to be treated as the less serious danger would lead to Maria’s worth to the Kingdom dropping. She could not allow Rion’s words to go unchallenged
「I understand that. I also expect that to be true, but still, fighting humans is harder..」
「Why do you think so?」
「Because when you fight the demons, all methods are on the table. You can burn an entire settlement with demons in it and no one will say a word if there are no human casualties. Try to do that to a human army and everyone screams of massacres.」
Rion’s example was outrageous and Maria again had no reply. For the first time since she had met him, he made her afraid.
「Besides, when it comes to the devils, you’re here to ask for advice. And that’s enough for even someone like me to succeed.」
「You cannot possibly..」
She desperately grasped for an argument to refute him and found nothing. Even accusing him of lacking magic with the correct attributes wouldn’t fly. Rion had the same water attribute that she had. All that was left available to her was her trump card, the fusion, but she was hesitating to mention it. After all, it was very likely he would prove capable of using it once taught.
If that happened, her own worth would diminish. She needed popularity among the citizens even more, now that she was aiming to become a queen outside of the paths offered by the game plot.
Her pride didn’t allow her to accept being written in the history in a bad light as a usurper.
「We apologize for having to cut this fascinating conversation short, but we really need Viscount Frey to return to planning the capital’s defensive measures.」
Maria got help from an unexpected source.
「…Everything is ready, majesty. My wish to have the hero here is a contingency measure.」
This was why Rion had been dozing in the chair like he had.
The King, when made aware of the possibility of an assault from Merica, had immediately summoned Rion to the capital. Not to learn more, but to have him prepare countermeasures.
This was why the table had all those documents on it. They were intelligence collated by the south-eastern department of the Kingdom. Information that Rion crammed into his head and used to formulate a defensive strategy.
And since it hadn’t been known when exactly Merica was going to attack, Rion had been working under pressure and he hardly had time to sleep.
「”Put the defensive lines back in order and make that fact obvious to Merica”. This is your strategy?」
And this ultimately was what Rion came up with. A plan that King wouldn’t put up with.
「It is a splendid plan, majesty. Once Merica realizes our country doesn’t have any openings, they won’t come to invade. The war will be avoided.」
「For the time being, you meant to say. This will do nothing to temper their ambitions.」
「It will remain that way as long as the country continues to be vigilant.」
「And we are telling you that ambition needs to be crushed once and for all.」
「I don’t think that is a good reason to take unnecessary risks for, majesty. 」
「We command it to happen!」
「It is a subject’s duty to refuse an order that is misguided.」
This kind of exchange had happened many times, even way before the Crown Prince came back. The King wanted to make use of the Merica’s invasion to crush them. After all, invading another country brought a lot of risks. The damage one would suffer would be huge if one ended up losing after going in deep into hostile territory.
The King wanted Merica to suffer that exact fate. And he wanted to do it because he believed Rion was capable of pulling it off.
But Rion was not even trying to raise to those expectations. In the first place, he didn’t even want to be in the capital. The development of his territory was progressing well and he didn’t want to be separated from it. Rion started to feel that if it manages to do just one more step forward, the rest will go smoothly.
Hence, the King’s request was a hindrance. Enough of a one, in fact, that he was tempted to switch sides.
「The tea is ready. May I suggest a break?」
The voice of Ariel instantly dispersed the stormy atmosphere around Rion and the King, although her husband’s mood didn’t really improve.
「Mhm. A splendid idea.」
「In that case, ladies, do serve the beverages.」
Following Ariel’s instructions, the maids placed the tea they had brought by each of the chairs. There were even snacks to be had with it.
Before long, the fragrance of the tea enveloped the entire room calming those inside it. The mood changed for now.
「…You really have an excellent wife.」
「And I won’t hand Ariel over to anyone, majesty.」
「Oh, we know. All we are trying to say is that the two of you are good for each other.」
For Maria, this development was really unexpected. Her great plan to use the fall of the capital to get rid of all the hindrances was hindered by the worst of them. Rion.
It should be a good thing that he had come to the palace on his own without her having to do anything, yet it only ended up causing her more worry.
With the invasion countermeasures this advanced, she did not think fall of capital was possible now
And, with the capital safe, her most recent scheme crumbled to dust. What was more, she couldn’t even be sure what was going to happen in the story from now on.
No matter how much she tried to deny them, her worries kept increasing. She had finally realized that her usual method of just going along with expected scenario events wouldn’t work anymore. She had to act based on her own ideas from now on.
And she would start by getting rid of Rion.
「He is a dangerous existence.」
This was the first thing she said to Lancelot now that they were left alone together.
He and Erwin were the only people left truly at her disposal. The connections she had established in the Academy frayed or snapped completely now that those young men were leading armies all over the Kingdom. It didn’t help that she had neglected them thinking she no longer had a use for them once she had been recognized as the hero. It didn’t help either that she had already thought of herself as queen and though dealing with those of low station a hassle.
Now that things were not going her way and her relationship with Arnold was history, she regretted that state of things. But she had to make do with what she had and figure out a different method.
「I do not disagree. But he is strong, shouldn’t we make use of that for now.?」
Lancelot’s reply was not what she wanted to hear.
There was a fundamental difference in how the two of them viewed Rion, and it came from their personal standpoints. Lancelot, a member of one of the Kingdom’s most influential Houses, was still loyal to the country. For him, if Rion had the power to save the land from ruin, he had to be used.
Maria saw things differently. While she did want to become a queen, it did not matter to her if it would be a Gran Flamm’s throne or not. Therefore, any hindrances on the road to that goal should be destroyed.
The biggest of those at the moment was Rion. She couldn’t know he saw her in a very similar light.
「We can’t do that.」
「Why? As you said yourself, we cannot subjugate devils and defend the capital at the same time. We need someone to fulfill one of those tasks in our stead.」
「That will change the future. It may end up leading to the Demon God resurrecting, you know?」
「Leading to what?」
This was the argument Maria chose to convince Lancelot. She wasn’t even lying, the scenario she had known from the game was indeed falling apart.
「All the methods to deal with the devil I have in my head… If things go as they are supposed to, that knowledge is certain to bring success. However, he is always acting differently to what I have in mind. If that continues, the future will change, my knowledge will turn useless, and the subjugations will fail. The Demon God will revive.」
「…Are you certain of that? That man had already subjugated two devils without your knowledge. If he can do it, so can we. 」
Lancelot was secretly not happy with what Maria had said. It implied that it ultimately didn’t matter who was at her side and it wounded his pride.
「I would hardly call his actions a success. They ended up making the enemy stronger.」
「Really. In all honesty, what he did made me doubt him. I can’t help thinking he’s actually acting in the interest of the Demon God’s return.」
And, like that, Maria attempted to mislead Lancelot into thinking that Rion himself might be a devil. The noble found this “truth” shocking, but he couldn’t object. He was still under the impression that all that Maria said on the subject of the devils was correct.
「I have no evidence. But if my suspicions are true, the implications are grave.」
「…But without evidence.」
Although he was shocked, Lancelot’s response lacked enthusiasm. Rion of now was different to what he had been in the past. He had the trust of the King as proven by being tasked with the defense of the capital. Attempting a false indictment on such an individual carried a huge risk of having it rebound on them instead.
「Think about it, isn’t it weird for someone from the slum to find employment in a marquess estate?」
「It is, but it is also not enough.」
The fact was suspicious, but carried no connection to the devils.
「And the fact he can use magic despite having heterochromia… Isn’t he simply channeling the power of the Demon God?」
「There is no evidence to support that.」
The existence of the Demon God itself was still unconfirmed. Although the Magic Bureau would be more than delighted to examine Rion’s powers in detail, this was not enough to tie him to the devils.
「…Do you not trust my words?」
Hearing Lancelot continuously reject her words flustered Maria, but not for a moment did she consider her arguments lacked persuasion.
「I do. But without evidence, nobody else will. We need more to indict him.」
「He’s a devil. There’s no need for indictments, just subjugation. Once that is done, the truth will become evident.」
Her reasoning was similar to those fuelling witch hunts. The righteous tested the suspects with torture and those who survived were guilty, while those who died joined gods in paradise. Regretfully, innocence could only be established posthumously. A very handy excuse to remove someone that needs to die.
「Lancelot. I want to protect the future with you. With two of us together, I’m sure we can make this world into a better one.」
In the end, Maria reverted to seduction. And it wasn’t a bad method to fall back on. The greatest weapon of the protagonist had been, and still was, her ability to capture men. It wasn’t as if her charm went poof when the game reached the Strategy Arc
She was going to use her ability for the sake of the future she thought of. Not to capture a target, but for the sake of her scheme.
It made one wonder what kind of story such a protagonist would bring about.